Clemson is used to being a heavy favorite to win games in the ACC.
The Tigers have won the conference six straight years and have reached the College Football Playoff in each of those seasons.
But when the betting lines came out for the college football Week 8 slate of games, the Tigers found themselves in an unusual place: as an underdog. To whom, exactly? To No. 23 Pitt, a team they demolished in 2018 and 2020 in the two most recent matchups. The opening line had the Panthers favored by three points.
Clemson opens as a 3-point underdog at Pittsburgh. I’m not sure I’ve ever typed those words during a regular season.
— Grace Raynor (@gmraynor) October 17, 2021
How long has it been since the Tigers weren’t favored to win in the regular season? And what are oddsmakers seeing that makes them think Pitt will knock off Clemson? Let’s take a look.
When is the last time Clemson was a regular- season underdog?
The ACC has been Clemson’s conference for a long time. The Tigers have lost a handful of conference games in the recent past, but no team has been considered to be on par with Dabo Swinney’s group in a long time.
The most recent team that was expected to beat Clemson was Louisville in 2016. The Lamar Jackson-led Cardinals were installed as two-point road favorites over the Tigers.
To that point in the season (through Louisville’s first four games), Jackson had completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,330 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. He had rushed 61 times for 526 yards and 12 more scores. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy that season.
Louisville had an explosive offense that averaged 63.5 points per game in those first four games. That output propelled the Cardinals to third in the AP Top 25 and favorite status over the No. 5 Tigers. Clemson went on to win the game 42-36.
But even then, the Tigers were expected to lose by less than a field goal. To find the last time they were at least three-point underdogs, you have to go back to 2014. In the third week of that season, No. 22 Clemson went on the road to face No. 1 Florida State, and opened as 20.5-point underdogs to the Jameis Winston-led Seminoles.
Winston and Florida State were coming off a national championship season and a Heisman Trophy. But the line dropped by nearly a touchdown when Winston was suspended for a sexually explicit and profane outburst inside the FSU student union. He initially was suspended for the first half of the game before the ban was increased to the full game, according to ESPN. Still, Florida State was favored by about two touchdowns.
Clemson took the lead in the fourth quarter but Winston’s replacement, Sean Maguire, scored a touchdown late in the game before the Seminoles eventually won in overtime 23-17.
So if recent history is any indication, the Tigers have at least covered the spread each time they were underdogs against ACC opponents, though they are just 1-1 on the moneyline.
Why is Pitt favored to win?
At face value, the line should not seem all that surprising. A ranked home team is favored against an unranked road team. Seems about right.
It’s just the names that carry more value. Clemson doesn’t usually look like an underdog.
But this is a different Pitt team and a different Clemson team. The Panthers are averaging 48.3 points per game — third-most in the nation — and allowing 20 points per game — 34th in the nation. They are 5-1, with the only loss coming in Week 3, a 44-41 upset against Western Michigan.
Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett has quietly climbed up in Heisman Trophy odds. DraftKings Sportsbook now has him at +2200 (22-1) to win the award. He has 21 passing touchdowns, one interception, 1,934 passing yards and a 69.8 completion percentage for the season.
Clemson, on the other hand, has struggled, particularly on offense. The Tigers are averaging 20.5 points per game in their first season without Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, which ranks 113th out of 130 teams in the FBS. The defense has done its part, holding teams to just 12.5 points per game — second-best in FBS. But the Tigers have not beaten a team by a full seven points since a 49-3 drubbing of FCS South Carolina State in Week 2. Taking out that game, Clemson is averaging just 14.8 points against FBS competition.
Pitt’s defense hasn’t been spectacular, but Clemson hasn’t been able to score points on any major-conference team this year. And if Pickett and the Panthers can score three or four times, that might be all they need to win against the hapless Tigers offense.